Elian Nation

Scenes from a splintered city

He says he sold about 25 of the foot-long flags in fifteen minutes. They went for three dollars each. Many were displayed in car windows. American flags are selling too, but this is no patriotic gesture. An incensed man bought twelve Old Glories and set them ablaze on the sidewalk, Vernon reports. "They're mad," he adds while making change for a twenty-dollar bill. "They're pissed."

T-shirts displaying Elian's face sell for seven dollars. They show the rafter boy in front of the Miami skyline, holding baby Jesus. One man makes a special request. He wants a shirt with a large Cuban flag emblazoned on the front, captioned with the words "PROUD TO BE A CUBAN." On the back would be an upside-down picture of the Stars and Stripes with the words, "I'M ASHAMED TO BE AN AMERICAN."

Despite several cell-phone calls, Vernon, who is dressed in a black, long-sleeve dress shirt and black slacks, is unable to come up with the shirt. "I can't do it today," he laments. "No one can get a batch of white T-shirts. It's a holiday weekend."

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Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite

Nevertheless sales are brisk. He has earned $3500 in just a few days.

At a Chevron station on Flagler Street and 27th Avenue, Eva Morejon is trying to cash in, too. "They're setting the city on fire because of this injustice," she says, staring westward. She and her business partner, who identifies himself only as Tony, are sitting on a blue Igloo cooler on the shady side of their snack truck. The neatly painted green letters on the small white jeep offer guarapo -- the juice of crushed, raw sugar cane -- but at this moment police have chased away most of their potential customers.

Morejon regards the pile of charred debris in the center of the intersection, then looks further to the west, where alternating plumes of black and white smoke gush from among a thicket of Cuban flags. "Is that just smoke or is that more [tear] gas?" she asks in Spanish. She shakes her head, brown ponytail swinging back and forth. "Muy malo," she declares.

When they stopped their refrescos truck at the Chevron this morning, the pair had no idea they would be setting up shop at the nerve center of the Miami Police Department's riot-control operation. Behind them is a Univision broadcasting truck; diagonally across the intersection, the Walgreens parking lot is filled with TV trucks, mobile transmitters lifted skyward. Cops have sealed off the area so few vehicles pass.

Morejon, a Cuban who came to Miami in 1970, thinks the police are being too rough with protesters, but understands they're just cleaning up a mess left by the federal decision to forcibly remove Elian. "Janet Reno? Es una gay," she says, throwing in some English. "She doesn't have children; how can she understand a family? And Clinton and Castro are husband and wife," she adds. When asked which is the man of the house, she laughs: "Clinton is afraid of Castro. The American government has done nothing to help us."

As they will throughout the day, the street protests ebb and flow. A couple of dozen sweating, tired-looking Miami cops, some holding riot helmets, stream by; not far behind are straggling, flag-bearing demonstrators and reporters. Morejon and Tony spring into action. Morejon serves drinks to protester and press, Anglo, black, and Hispanic alike. Tony feeds the raw cane into the guarapo machine and passes out icy cups of cane juice. Then a reporter asks for a water. "Se acabó," Morejon announces, displaying the empty Igloo. 7UP will have to do.

Some people clearly changed plans in a hurry to attend Saturday's protests. Just before police heave tear-gas grenades on Flagler Street about 1:15 p.m., a bespectacled woman is holding two Cuban flags and a sign as she approaches a line of officers. The front of the placard reads, "Pinko Government must go." In block letters on the back, she advertises "Yard Sale. Everything must go."

During the first half of the Miami Heat's playoff trouncing of the Detroit Pistons at about 1:30 p.m., a time-out is declared. A remote-controlled camera connected to the overhead video screen pans the audience. In section 101 about sixteen rows up from the backboard, three teenagers pull out a Cuban flag. The camera focuses on a kid seated just below them, then swivels its gaze elsewhere. Trying to attract the lens, the teens wave their banner, which is about four feet high by six feet long. Then a police officer with a walkie-talkie shows up. "Follow me," he commands, and the trio troops up the stairs behind the cop. Five minutes later they return, sans Cuban flag. "They can't do that," a bystander complains. "It's a freedom-of-speech issue."

Sunday is much mellower. At 5:30 a.m. at the Branch Miamian compound of the fractured Gonzalez family, exactly one day after the raid, a reporter for News Radio 610 (WIOD-AM) files a live report from an essentially dead street. "There's nothing going on here," he says, throwing coverage back to a studio braced to cover riots. At Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Allapattah, a sunrise Easter service proceeds with only one mention of the child, and then only for comic effect. The Rev. Jimmie Brown, barreling through a sermon titled "Because He Lives," runs down a list of worries that can distract people from the good news that the Lord is alive. "Some of you," he says, wrapping up the list, "might even be worried about Elian." As Brown intended the congregation chuckles. In this neighborhood libertad is no more than an afterthought.

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